Animal Deception

Paul Taylor's book Respect for Nature has a very good section about deceiving animals.  It never occurred to me before how often hunting and fishing involve deception.  Deer are lured to feeding stations where they become easy targets.  Baited traps trick animals into a false sense of security.  Fish "take the bait" and find themselves with  a hook in their mouths.  All of this violates a duty of "fidelity" that Taylor postulates as an element of our general duty to respect animals.

I was reminded of his argument while reading a review in today's New York Times book review.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes about feeding deer and then studying them in New Hampshire.  Wildlife managers tell people to consider whether they'll be able to follow through, if the deer keep coming back for more. They are assuming the duty of fidelity Taylor talks about.  The reviewer says Thomas knows she shouldn't be feeding the deer, and worries about it in the book--I'm going to have read it for that reason, but also because she's a very good animal writer.

There's a very touching passage about fidelity to animals in Dave Eggers' new work of narative non-fiction,  Zeitoun. The book is about a successful business owner who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.  After the city flooded and the scope of the disaster became clear, Zeitoun's family begged him to leave the city, but he stayed on--putting himself in harm's way (don't worry, no "spoilers" below).  He stayed because he was able to paddle around in a canoe and pull people out of houses, and because he wanted to watch over his house and properties. But there's another very touching part of the explanation.

Zeitoun heard dogs barking in the house opposite his, and paddled over once a day to feed them meat from his defunct freezer.  They expected him at the same time every day, and how could he disappoint them?  Zeitoun--a Muslim from Syria--isn't particularly an animal advocate (note: meat in freezer).  But he feels he can't let the dogs down. (I've read that Muslims think about dogs the way westerners think about rats and pigs, but I guess that's not necessarily so. The book challenges many other stereotypes about Muslims--it's interesting on many levels.)

We seem to fall very easily into a sense of owing things to animals.  We shouldn't deceive them (we think) and what's more, we shouldn't make promises to them that we can't keep.  Thinking about hunting and fishing in that light, it's harder than ever for me to get a grip on why people do these things.


s. wallerstein said...

There seems to be a lot of different issues here.

1. The dogs: in the example you give the problem isn't deceiving the dogs, but not fulfilling an implicit promise to feed them: dogs expect people to feed them, and I agree that humans have an implicit social contract with dogs, since we have bred them to be dependent creatures.

2. The use of deception to hunt animals. The issue here for me is whether it is right to hunt animals, not whether it is right to use deception to hunt them.

3. Are we really deceiving fish when we use bait to lure them? Do fish have a sufficiently developed nervous system so that one can talk of deceiving them? There are ant traps, but no one would talk of deceiving ants.

4. Is deception always wrong? Deception forms part of many normal activities: poker, soccer, basketball, hide and seek, debating (as a debater, I learned to trick the other into accepting premises which would lead to absurd or otherwise undesireable conclusions), etc.

Jean Kazez said...

The idea is that there's a duty of fidelity which has more than one component. The duty not to deceive is one part of it, the duty to fulfill promises and the like is another. I'm talking about deception where hunting is concerned, and promises where the dogs and deer are concerned.

I don't see the problem with saying that you're deceiving someone who can't comprehend the concept of deception. We talk that way about children all the time.

The idea is not that the wrongness of hunting is entirely reducible to the wrongness of deception. Hunting is wrong in lots of ways, for lots of reasons. Also, Taylor doesn't say that deception is always wrong. It's just "prima facie" wrong. In some cases the wrongness might be outweighed. For example, if you have to trick your cat into getting into a crate to go to the vet, the deception is "worth it."

s. wallerstein said...

You say that you don't see the problem with saying that you're deceiving someone who can't understand the concept of deception. Surely, fish aren't someone. Children, whom you mention, understand what deception is from a very young age, although they may not always understand when adults are deceiving them. I don't think that one can deceive a new-born baby, that is, a baby who does not understand what deception is. A child of 6 months probably understands deception in the sense that a dog does, if that child doesn't understand it more consciously, that is, in the Pavlovian sense: the dog hears a bell and expects dinner; the 6 month old child sees her mother and expects milk or a hug. It would be wrong to deceive either the 6-month old child or the dog.
But can fish be conditioned, can they learn new habits, do fish have a Pavlovian ability to learn to associate two stimuli with a future event? I doubt it.

Jean Kazez said...

I really don't see the problem here. Animals respond in different ways to threatening and safe situations. If you deliberately disguise a threatening situation to make it look safe to the animal, then there's a perfectly plain sense in which you're trying to deceiving animal. You're trying to give the animal a false sense of the situation, in order to achieve some objective (maybe good or maybe bad).

You'd say the same thing about a small child--even one without any concept of deception. If the baby would react negatively to X, and X is deliberately disguised as Y, which the baby likes, then you're trying to deceive the baby. People do such things all the time, though usually for good reasons (when it comes to babies). Being able to be deceived is a much more primitive thing than understanding the concept of deception.

As to whether a fish is a "who"--I'm happy to refer to animals as "whos" if I have to choose between "who" and a "what." Clearly a fish is not just a thing.

I think most people are quite prepared to own up to deceiving animals and young children. Sometimes it bothers them to do so, and sometimes not. But it's not as if they don't recognize deception as taking place.

s. wallerstein said...

Perhaps I haven't expressed myself clearly. It's true, as you say, that "being able to be deceived is a much more primitive thing than understanding the concept of deception". That's why a dog or a deer or a 6-month old baby can be deceived: they have expectations about the future or about what they habitually receive from another, although they have no concept of what deception is. Incidentally, the word "decepción" in Spanish has the meaning of "to let down". What I deny is that a being like a new-born baby or a fish or an ant can be deceived, since they have no expectations about the future nor do they expect anything from the other. By the way, I'm not at all sure that hunting and fishing are wrong per se, if they are done by people who hunt or fish for food and who respect the ecological balance. Fishing today is a huge industry which is destroying the ecosystem of the oceans, as you know, and that is wrong.

Unknown said...

I'm with Amos here. I tend to think that the wrongness of hunting or fishing is reducible to the wrong of the killing/maiming/injuring that is done to the deer or the fish.

For example, lets take two situations.
A. a deer is lured to a feeding station under the impression that it will receive food, and then is shot, or

B. a deer happens to walk past the hunter hiding in the long grass and is shot

I tend to think that there is no difference from the deer's point of view between A and B.
If we think that it is wrong for the hunter to shoot the deer, and the 'deception' makes it easier for the hunter to shoot the deer, it may be that we will think the deception worse. But that is because deception leads to more of what is really wrong - the killing/injuring of the deer.

Consider C - the reformed hunter
Another hunter has thought long and hard about the practice of hunting and has decided that it is morally wrong. But he still has fond memories of his times stalking deer in the forest. He invests in a telephoto lens and fancy camera. He sets up a pretend feeding station in the wood (though in fact there is no food at the station). He waits in the grass until a deer appears, deceived into believing that there may be food present, and takes its photo.

or perhaps D.
our reformed hunter just waits in the grass until a deer happens to come by, and takes its photo.

Is C wrong? In this case we have isolated the deception question from the hunting.
we might be worried about C if the deer is led to the feeding station and ends up somehow in other danger (perhaps there are real hunters nearby). Or if the deer neglects other sources of food to come to the 'feeding station' and ends up hungry.
The other way that this deception could be wrong, would be if the deer were capable of understanding that it had been deceived and felt cheesed off or manipulated. Or perhaps, even if the deer didn't realise in this case that there was a photographer in the bushes, but had a general preference for not being deceived we might want to call this wrong.

But I don't think deer (I'm not completely sure about dogs) are capable of this sort of reflection or preference.

My feeling is that if the deer is able to find food elsewhere, and doesn't end up hungry or in other forms of danger that C is equivalent to D.

One last way around this. You might want to say that even if the deer isn't worse off, there is something wrong with our reformed hunter's character in that he is deceiving the deer in order to take the photo. But, in my books at least, if he/she has taken reasonable precautions to ensure that the deer doesn't end up any worse off for visiting his pretend feeding station, (and has good reason to think that it won't be) that there isn't anything with him as a moral agent.


Jean Kazez said...

Dom--I think you're making a different point than Amos. Amos's point is that animals can't be deceived in the first place. Your point is that it's not bad to deceive them.

I am only arguing that it is prima facie bad--so the badness can be outweighed. Deception can be used for the good of animals--like when animals are given medicine disguised as food.

Plus, I'm not saying deception is the main badness involved in deer hunting. The suffering and death is much worse.

Furthermore, I'm happy to agree that when humans are deceived, there are elements to the badness that aren't present in the animal case. Humans can have the realization they're being deceived and get very upset about it. Animals don't have the concept of deception, even though they can be deceived.

Still, there's something amiss with short-circuiting an animal's ability to respond to his environment. Here you've got this impressive creature who's beautifully equipped to avoid danger, and the hunter takes that away from him. He makes the deer go voluntarily to his own death.

I do have the intuition that's a problem, and I think lots of other people do too. In my animal rights class, hunters are sensitive to broad issues of "hunting ethics"--they want to be generally fair and respectful--but the killing itself doesn't strike them as wrong. Many find the whole "feeding station" strategy for hunting deer revolting.

As to your scenarios--I'm going to bite the bullet--yes, there's a problem in scenario C. Basically the problem with deception is that it costs the animal his autonomy. His preference is to walk toward food and away from danger. But through deception, we humans can make him do just what he doesn't want to do--walk toward danger. In case C, there's no danger, but there's still a violation of autonomy. The deer prefers to walk toward something useful, not toward pretend food. So the photographer gets the deer to act against his preferences.

Of course, it's a minor violation, since the deer isn't being tricked into heading for something dangerous, but just toward something useless. Still, my intuition is that there's a little problem there. The photographer should lure the animal into position with real food.

Need to get work done today--so that's all I have time for.

s. wallerstein said...

Jean: You're distorting my position, which I did make clear in my last post. I never said that animals cannot be deceived. I said that animals with less developed mental capacities cannot be deceived, for example, fish.
I specifically cited dogs as animals which can be deceived. I don't know enough about animal intelligence to say where the line is, but dogs can be deceived because they expect things of us (food when the bell rings, etc.) and because they are let down or disappointed (an observable fact) when they don't receive what they reasonably expect to be receive.

Jean Kazez said...

Ah, I guess I lost track. Your point is still different than Dom's. You're worried about whether all animals can be deceived. He's saying it isn't actually bad to deceive them (the ones that can be deceived).

Faust said...

Interesting stuff. I think Amos is at least right that there is a continuum problem here: Dog-->Fish-->Ant. And I think Dom points us in the direction that we need to clarify why deception is bad once it has been seperated from killing.

Jean has suggested the answer has to do with autonomy and respect for it. I think that is an interesting way to look at it: duty not to decieve is a duty to respect autonomy. So applying this principle to the continuum problem we get:

It is wrong to decieve creatures that are capabable of autonomy.

Is it reasonable to say that an ant can be decieved? Do individual ants have purposes? It feels much more natural to say that dogs have purposes.

The concpet of autonomy is a much more rareified concept than mere "animal suffering." It makes me want to ask:

Can I decieve a Roomba vacuum cleaner?

Wayne said...

amos- Yes fish can be trained via conditioned response. There's even a kit to help you along: http://www.thinkgeek.com/geektoys/science/adca/

As for animals being deceived... I think its clear that they can be... The party that is deceived does not have to be aware of the deception in order to be deceived.... Ideally, they aren't aware of it at all. So whether animals can know they are being deceived isn't relevant. Its the consequences of the deception that makes it bad I think...

When we decieve our children, we think the benefits of the deception outweigh the wrong or harm done by the deception. There is something questionable about ill-informing someone to consent to something (thereby coercing their ability to choose.... Thats what I take deception to be).

In the hunter's case there is some harm that is intended in the deception. In the case of the reformed hunter, there is no harm that is INTENDED by the hunter, but there may still be harm done by the hunter.... If the deer modifies her habits to depend upon the bait. But if the bait trap is only put out for a short time, and no reliance is created by the "promise" of food, then I don't think any harm is done by the photographer.

s. wallerstein said...

I might be wrong about fish, but deception isn't just the intention to deceive: the one who is deceived must be capable of feeling let down or that a promise wasn't fulfilled or that things aren't as they are supposed to be. It isn't necessary that the one who is deceived sees that she is deceived in any particular case, but she must have the capability of sensing deception on some primary level, not necessarily on a conscious level.
There is a machine which emits a strange sound to attract and kill mosquitos, but I would not say that mosquitos are being deceived. Not even Dick Cheney could deceive a mosquito.

Faust said...

Can you deceive a thermostat? If not, why not?

Unknown said...

amos- I don't agree. See my definition of deception above.... Its not a technical definition, or one that is traditionally used (maybe it is... who knows?!)... I just made it up on the spot. But I think its a good one.

I have to deceive you in order to throw you a surprise party. Now lets say for the sake of argument you really enjoy surprise parties. The deception is for your benefit. You're not let down... in principle you can't be let down except perhaps the the party wasn't as good as it could have been.

But I think the deception point is rather a small point in the larger argument that Jean is making here. Even if you agree that animals can't be deceived, there does seem to be something "unsportsmanlike" by luring them to you, instead of stalking them.

Unknown said...

thermostats can't be deceived because they don't make choices. Animals can be deceived because they can choose to go X direction or Y direction, and you're lying to them to influence their choice towards the one you want them to choose.

s. wallerstein said...

Wayne: I said that in order to be deceived, a being has to have the capability of sensing that things aren't as they are supposed to be, on some primal, often unconscious level. I think that would include a surprise party, for I, the one who is surprised, suppose that I will return home to read and am surprised (pleasantly) by your company and your internationally famous soy burgers.

Wayne said...

amos - But then we wouldn't be able to deceive young children, or hopelessly naive people, under your definition, since they would never be aware of the deception. No?

s. wallerstein said...

I said above that a new born baby cannot be deceived. I also affirmed that a 6-month old baby (approximate age) could be deceived because she already expects, for example, her mother to give her milk and a hug, etc.
I've never met a person who is so hopelessly naive that she cannot be deceived according to my definition. In fact, naive people, in my experience, generally suffer from excessively high expectations in reference to others and not only are often deceived, but also often feel deceived/let down/ that things aren't as they are supposed to be.

Jean Kazez said...

I think there's a pretty plain vanilla sense in which you can deceive animals--or at least the ones that are central to the post, like deer. To deceive is just to intentionally generate a false representational state or intentionally cause an animal to miss a feature of the environment that would normally be noticed. That's what you do when you use feeding stations, decoys, bait, etc., to cause an animal to see food and not to see a threat.

Talking this way about animals is in keeping with common sense and it's also in keeping with going ideas about representation in philosophy of mind. So I feel pretty good about saying that hunters deceive animals.

What is more tricky is the claim that it's bad to deceive animals--that is, that the deception itself is bad, and not just adverse consequences it leads to. The explanation I've offered (8:40 AM) is that the badness has to do with impairing the animal's autonomy. The animal is equipped to avoid danger, but the trickery makes the animal pursue danger. So the animal isn't able to control what happens to him in the way he'd normally be able to.

I actually think this analysis of what's bad about deception holds up pretty well if you think about what's bad about deceiving people. Deception stops people from being able to control what happens to them. Take, for example, the sheriff who was deceived about "balloon boy" last week. There he was spending the day trying to save a boy who was supposedly floating around in a balloon. But the boy was really in the attic. The deception (apparently deliberate) made it impossible for him to avoid spending the day in that absurd pursuit. He couldn't control his destiny--for that day.

That's what deceptive hunting does to animals. It cause them to act suicidally, when normally they would act self protectively. They lose a type of self-control that they normally possess.

Granted, just shooting an animal without any deception is also very harmful, but the element of deception strikes me as making things a shade worse.

Faust said...

I agree that your common sense analysis is...common sense.

I also agree that framing it as an autonomy problem is a good way to describe the decision making going on here. Your position is: In some reasonable common sense fashion animals have "control over themselves" and subverting that self control is wrong in some way.

A way of putting my difficulty with this way of looking at things is this:

Animals are like machines (and so are people aka animals). What is a machine? A cause and effect system. In my view if you accept materialism EVERYTHING is a kind of machine. Calling it a "biological system" is just a fancy of way of saying super complicated machine.

To say that an entity is "autonomous" means to me: "has control of it's decision loops." To deceive a creature (an animal or another human) is to get inside it's decision loop and thus gain control over it's behavior.

Here is the thing: animals do this to each other ALL THE TIME. They have camouflage fur. (We wear camouflage clothes). They emit certain scents to scare away predators. Or have colors or markings that make them look bigger than they are. There is some insect eating plant (I can't remember if it's the venus fly trap or a different one), that emits the smell of rotting flesh. Flies fly in and get eaten. Is the plant "deceiving" the flies? Does that even make sense?

Animals both in defense and predation try to get inside each other's decision loops and gain the upper hand. I imagine this very process drives quite a bit of evolution.

So to suggest that we, masters of incredibly complex decision trees are somehow doing something that is bad in a particularly noteworthy way because we are employing the same subversive tactics in our predatory activities that other animals do as a matter of course is interesting.

One wants to ask, why should we not employ deception in the same way "mother nature" does? Because we have the capacity to realize that we are doing it? If it does not add a unique kind of suffering to the total equation, why is it worthy of moral consideration?

Jean Kazez said...

Well, this is a general issue that you have to face, if you're going to make any judgments about how we treat animals. Are we going to judge ourselves for doing to animals what they blithely do to other? (Yes, I agree, they deceive each other a lot--and in some cases it's intentional and deliberate.)

I think it makes sense to hold ourselves to moral standards whether we're dealing with others who can do that (normal adults) or others who can't (children, people with intellectual impairments, animals). If morality were just "tit for tat" that would be silly...but it isn't!

Faust said...

Is does not imply ought. Check. My final sentence indicates my central concern, namely: If it does not add a unique kind of suffering to the total equation, why is it worthy of moral consideration?

My point is that it's unclear what the master standard that is being applied here. Does decieving animals cause a unique kind of suffering? Maybe it does for some animals, if it's done in a specific kind of programatic way.

Consider the two following examples:

1) I set out a deer feeding station, feed the deer until they become habituated to it and then take down the feeding station and leave. No deer are killed, but I've disrupted their pattern of life, and they may suffer as they look for new sources of food.

2) I don camoflage gear, go to a downwind position, and stealthily lie in wait (no feeding station) until a deer comes in range and I shoot it. It was decieved! It thought I was a bush! As it happens, it was a quick clean kill.

Which is worse? Maybe the need to follow through on our "promise" to the deer in example 1 is different then the decieving of the deer in example 2.

Either way doesn't it in the end come down to which one causes more suffering?

Wayne said...

I think their intellectual impairment does change the moral scenario.... it makes it less bad to deceive them, so long as we are deceiving them in order to benefit them, not to harm them. Imagine we set up the feeder, and instead of hunting or photographing them, we have a vet jump out and give them a physical examination and have them walk away healthier. I wouldn't have any qualms about this (but then I have heavy consequentialist leanings).

Faust said...

Right Wayne. I'm just not sure deception is inherently bad. I think it always depends on the stuff surounding deception. Whenever you decieve a person you run the risk that they will be mad at you for decieving them. But if they aren't was it wrong?

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think we are going to have to part company here on a couple of issues. I don't see happiness as the only "good" or suffering as the only "bad"--so I'm happy to say that something bad takes place when an animal is deceived, regardless of whether it leads to any suffering. On the other hand, what I've been saying is that deception reduces an animal's autonomy. Would I think deception was bad in cases where it had no autonomy costs? Not sure. Sheer truth may be more valuable to a human being than to an animal. Something to do on a rainy day: think about a variety of "experience machine" type thought experiments involving animals.

Second difference of opinion--I don't think calling deception "bad" means that in any pair of situations, the situation that involves the most deception must be worse. So the two scenarios don't worry me. I can say deception is bad for animals, and still say the less deceptive situation is worse, because there are so many possibly important differences between them.

If you think deception is bad for animals, you just think other things being equal you shouldn't intentionally deceive them. That clause gives you plenty of wiggle room to say what needs to be said about specific cases.

s. wallerstein said...

Actually, Faust talked about autonomy on October 19 at 9:56.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, well, there was that brief moment when I thought I'd convinced him of something, but it quickly passed (sniff)...such is life!

Faust said...

Yes I agree we have some disagreements here. I think it actually goes pretty deep...all the down to ideas about representationalism and realism and the value thereof.

But more interesting to me is where the disagreements begin and end. We have plenty of common ground on cruelty being bad. It's just that you have an extra set of concerns beyond cruelty, which cluster in your concept of respect for animals: respect for their autonomy, fidelity to them when we make "promises" to them, and so forth.

I'm not sure to what degree I really disagree with all that, but I'm not clear how it works under the hood. So I'm more skeptical about the stuff under the hood of the intuition than I am in open disagreement.

On the case of autonomy for instance: another name for autonomy is free will. Do animals have it? Do WE have it? I'm just not clear how it works for humans, so I'm considerably less sanguine about free will in animals.

If there was a robot dog that was just as complex as a real dog would it be wrong to decieve it? Is it wrong to decieve a computer that can pass the turning test and appears to be autonomous? A Chalmer's Consciousness Zombie?

I know these questions are beyond the scope of your post, but for me these issues are way up in the air and prevent me from conclusively finding deception a bad thing in and of itself.

So when it comes to morality and animals I mostly just stick to cruelty. Is some particular action cruel or not? If it is, I say there better be a damn good reason to do it. If not, I don't particularly feel the need to layer on much else. But I'm listening :)